Northeastern University’s Truman Scholar pushes forward environmental justice

headshot of Amara Ifeji
Northeastern political science student Amara Ifeji was selected as a 2023 Truman Scholar for her commitment to public service, namely her efforts at the federal and state level to improve access to environmental education in Maine. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Amara Ifeji, a third-year political science student at Northeastern University, was one of only a select few students in the country who was named a 2023 Harry S. Truman Scholar this week.

Every year, the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation selects college students from across the U.S. who have committed themselves to public service to receive the scholarship. It provides an opportunity for them to continue that passion in graduate and law school programs. This year, out of 705 candidates, the foundation selected 62 Truman Scholars from 60 institutions, including Ifeji.

A Mainer through and through, Ifeji’s work in grassroots organizing and public policy exists at the intersection of environmental justice and access and racial justice. Through high school and her time at Northeastern, she has fought to expand access to environmental and climate education to youth, particularly youth of color, through state and federal advocacy efforts. Her work with the nonprofit Maine Environmental Education Association, Maine Climate Council, Nature Based Education Consortium and on Capitol Hill has shifted policy forward in major ways and will change the lives of young people who have historically not had access to outdoor learning opportunities.

“I see education as a very critical tool for realizing that end where we can all be environmental stewards in the way we act and interact with the world,” Ifeji says. “The Y[MCA] costs money. The [summer] camps that my sister went to cost money. But people have to go to school, so if we can have schools be that intermediary of these impactful and inspiring experiences, I think it will have more of an opportunity to reach all of us.”

Born in Nigeria, Ifeji and her family came to the United States when she was 2 years old. They lived in Maryland until she was 9, at which point they moved to Bangor, Maine, so her mother could go to pharmacy school. 

Early on, Ifeji faced barriers that most of her classmates never had to contend with. As one of only 20 Black students in a high school of about 1,200, Ifeji was deeply aware of the “overt tolerance for white supremacy culture” that pervaded her education growing up. 

She established her school’s first Multicultural Student Union and successfully organized students to get the superintendent and school board to provide district-wide diversity, equity and inclusion training. 

At the same time that she was cultivating her interest in racial justice, Ifeji was making a name for herself as a young environmental scientist. She took part in a local stormwater research training program, which had her building stormwater sensors and testing her local watershed, the Penobscot River. The experience sparked her passion for environmental education and outdoor learning, which she had never had the opportunity to explore.

President Joseph E Aoun and Amara Ifeji posing with two other people
Through her work at Northeastern as a Ujima Global Leader and her role as a grassroots organizer and policy leader for the Maine Environmental Education Association, Amara Ifeji operates at the intersection of environmental and racial justice. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Despite growing up within reach of Acadia National Park and the great Maine wilderness, Ifeji learned quickly that the outdoors are not equally accessible. Even with a scholarship, sending Ifeji’s younger sister was a challenge. Snow pants were definitely out of the question. Public parks and the outdoors also have a different association for Black people in America.

“It goes back historically to violence and harm that has been perpetuated against Black and brown folks in outdoor settings,” Ifeji says. “My parents, specifically my grandfather, really cautioned me, ‘Don’t be going outside. Don’t be playing outside. It’s not a space for us.’”

That didn’t deter Ifeji from becoming fascinated with the natural world and fiercely passionate about environmental justice. In response to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, she started researching how to use plants and fungi to remediate heavy metals. She won the 2019 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Best of Category and First Place Awards in Plant Sciences for her work.

“I’ve just been so grateful that it has been my passion and me dwelling in my basement for a good part of my high school experience that has led me to these opportunities that I never really thought I would have at the beginning of high school or even in my lifetime,” Ifeji says.

At Northeastern, Ifeji was named an Ujima Global Leader and has continued to carve a path that brings together racial and environmental justice both on and off campus. 

“Given today’s climate, Amara’s contributions as a conservationist and social activist are especially needed,” says Richard L. O’Bryant, director of the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute at Northeastern. “Being recognized as a Truman Scholar is an amazing achievement that will further support her efforts and continue in the legacy of Ujima Global Leader success. … Amara is an amazing individual along with being an outstanding political science student and her potential for future leadership is clear.”

She has moved from grassroots organizing to public policy work, sitting on the Maine Climate Council and co-chairing a working group for the Nature Based Education Consortium. Currently she is the director of policy for the Maine Environmental Education Association. At the federal level, Ifeji helps MEEA to secure funding for environmental education efforts from the EPA, NOAA and Department of Education; she is also active on Capitol Hill, meeting with Maine’s federal representatives to secure federal support for environmental and climate education.

Behind the scenes, Ifeji’s work led to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, agreeing to become the first and only Republican co-sponsor of the No Child Left Inside bill. If passed, the legislation would provide millions of dollars to schools across the country for providing environmental education in public schools.

“This legislation being introduced in a bipartisan way is such a critical step in the process,” says Olivia Griset, executive director of MEEA. “Hundreds of leaders in the field of environmental education policy are thanking Amara right now for her behind the scenes work to make this happen.”

Moving forward, Ifeji is getting started on her thesis, which will be focused on the Igbo people of Nigeria and the political and environmental injustices they face. She aims to go to law school to continue her environmental justice work, although she has even higher aspirations.

“Would I like to maybe be attorney general or governor [of Maine]? I can’t say no to that,” Ifeji says. “It’s going to very much be an uphill battle. I think it’s one that’s worth it. I love Maine; I love Maine’s people.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.